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This Earth Day: Who Bears Responsibility for Environmental Justice?

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at South Carolina chapter.

For many, Earth Day is a day for community service projects and speeches about the importance of recycling. But a holiday like Earth Day poses a solemn question: Who truly bears the responsibility of environmental justice? Is it solely the duty of everyday citizens to invest in sustainable habits, or should we also look to large corporations and government entities to preserve our habitats? It’s a legitimate question and the subject of great debate.

It’s no secret that many industries have a profoundly detrimental impact on the environment. To put it into perspective, approximately 30% of all global greenhouse gas emissions stem from ​​production and manufacturing industries, excluding industrial transportation-related emissions of at least 6.67%. The agriculture industry, contributing 10% of total greenhouse emissions, also generates the largest volume of total food waste, at 33%, surpassing grocery stores and consumers. As of 2022, three companies— ExxonMobil, Dow, and Sinopec —account for a staggering 16.2% of the global production of polymers destined for single-use plastic waste. Perhaps most alarmingly, the leading 100 single-use polymer producers collectively shoulder nearly 90% of all global plastic waste. Considering these figures, it’s easy to pin the blame for environmental degradation on corporations. 

Still, while the influence of corporations on the environment is significant, so is the impact of the everyday consumer. In 2022, transportation activities accounted for roughly 29% of all U.S. greenhouse emissions, 37% of which came from light-duty cars, trucks, and SUVs. Every year, about 30% of food in American grocery stores is thrown away,  two-thirds of which is due to food not being used before it goes bad. Food is the single largest component of U.S. landfills, making up 22% of municipal solid waste, and plastic joins it as only 9% of all plastic is ever recycled. However, these statistics paint only a partial picture, as one factor dramatically influences the impact of a consumer: their income. In the United States, the top decile emits between three to five times more greenhouse gases than the median individual and around 16 times more than the poorest decile. This pattern is repeated globally, where the top 10% of emitters were responsible for almost half of global energy-related CO2 emissions in 2021, compared with a mere 0.2% of the bottom 10%. 

You may be asking yourself: So what? Should we, as consumers, live in fear, critiquing every action for eternity, or should we wash our hands of the whole situation and blame billionaires or corporate greed for the destruction of our environment? In my opinion, the answer is neither. It’s true that compared to wealthy corporate conglomerates, the environmental impact of the average human being is reasonably low. However, we should still strive to do better for our environment because everything we do has an effect, no matter how small. Every choice we make, and every action we take contributes to the state of our environment. Whether we thrift instead of buy, compost instead of trash, or simply boycott unsustainable companies, our choices matter. The crucial thing to remember is that, ultimately, the ones with the most significant ability to create change are the corporations responsible for the most pollution — but that doesn’t mean our individual actions are insignificant. If you can just do your best, you’ll be doing more than enough. 

Hilary Brown

South Carolina '27

Hilary Brown is a writer for Her Campus South Carolina. She is a freshman at the University of South Carolina, double-majoring in accounting and finance. In her free time, Hilary enjoys cooking, trying new foods, watercolor painting, and hanging out with her Shih-Tzu, Scarlett.